A Conversation With Ben Cardin
By Josh Kurtz
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) always seems to find himself in the thick of major policy battles.
A week ago, in his capacity as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he led a delegation of five Democratic senators to the U.N. climate conference in Bonn, Germany. They were part of a large delegation of American politicians and business leaders who are still committed to the emissions reduction goals of the 2015 Paris accord — even though the Trump administration is trying to withdraw from the pact.
He’s also drilling into the Republican tax reform plan, as a member of the Finance Committee, and is likely to emerge as one of the proposal’s leading opponents. And as a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Cardin is deeply involved with the panel’s broad environmental portfolio, where he takes the lead on issues related to the Chesapeake Bay and is a fierce critic of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Maryland Matters sat down with Cardin last week to discuss a variety of issues, including his take on President Trump, the way forward for an agenda on climate action, the impact of tax reform on Maryland, and the 2018 elections. A lightly edited transcript follows:
So what’s next, given what the Trump administration is doing, to advance the ball on climate policy?
It’s a great question. We have people inside the administration who are rooting for us. Some are political appointments. Some are more career appointments. So we go over some strategies. As I said in Bonn, call it resiliency, call it adaptation, it might go get you some money. So there are different ways, you can move some buckets around that we may be able to do things. USAID gets some monies for resiliency, adaptation, that is really climate money.
Since you’re on Finance and you’re doing tax reform, is there any chance of even symbolically introducing a carbon tax amendment during the debate?
You know, if the carbon tax had a secret vote, it might pass. There’s a support for the carbon tax. You’ve got two problems: One, you have Republicans who aren’t going to support any tax. The second thing is, you run into the problem of, is it really going to be revenue neutral or are you going to use the money for different purposes? Do you use it for transportation? Some people want to use it for business tax relief. Do you use it for energy? There’s different needs out there. Cap-and-trade used it for energy. I hope we get back to the carbon tax sooner rather than later, but I don’t know if we want to do something symbolically if it doesn’t get an incredible vote. But we mentioned carbon taxes briefly in Bonn. Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has filed a bill. I speak about it frequently. I personally believe it’s an alternative.
I don’t think tax reform is going to succeed. They may pass something. But I don’t think it’s going to succeed. Here’s one advertised objective for federal tax reform as the Republicans see it: To make our business taxes more competitive. Are our business taxes not competitive? Perhaps they’re not, they have a good point. The problem is that it relies solely on income tax revenues rather than consumption taxes or carbon taxes. So there may be some way to use this to get more competitive taxation.
Is there even a consensus within your caucus on the carbon tax question or even how to address the climate issue going forward?
I guess we’ll never know (laughs). You’re asking a really great question. What happens two years from now when we have the majority in the House and Senate? And then what happens three years from now when we have a new president, plus the House and Senate?
So no preliminary discussions at this point?
I think that it would be a challenge. But I really do think a carbon tax can pass and be enacted into law. At this point it would have to be the right product. You really do need a president who has thought about some sensible policy, and this president hasn’t thought about sensible policy.
Just to go back to Bonn for a minute, did you run into [Maryland Environment Secretary] Ben Grumbles there?
I did. Ben came up to me. We don’t have a U.S. tent. The business community developed the tent. We had the best location, that’s the strange thing. We had one of the nicest facilities anybody had. Of course, it was paid for by private funds. So we were in that tent a lot, had a lot of our meetings in that tent, and Ben Grumbles was there the first day I was there. We talked. He came up to me. He was very much engaged. It was great to see him.
So with tax reform happening in your committee, what are your biggest fears, what are your expectations? Is it just going to be a Nothingburger?
It may be a big burger. I think they have a chance to succeed. But it won’t work in the long term. They may not even get the benefits of it politically. They will succeed in reducing the business taxes, which is their sole objective. But the middle income tax relief is solely cosmetic.
Will the voters buy that, do you think?
They may. You give somebody $50, they’re happy. But remember, the people you help, they remember you for about 10 minutes. The people you hurt, they never forget your name. They’re going to be a lot of people upset about the tax bill.
What’s your sense of its impact on Maryland?
[Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer (D-N.Y.) just put out a chart [from the National Education Association]. Maryland was No. 1 in terms of the impact. 25 percent would pay more taxes next year. 27 percent would pay more taxes in 2023. Nationwide it’s 10 percent, 12 percent.
We know we have one of the biggest deductions for itemized state and local [taxes]. And it goes from 20-some percent for state and local deductions to 5 percent. That’s going to have a big impact on charitable giving. That’s going to have a big impact on real estate. And if that really kicks in soon, state and local will not only lose the ability to take the standard deduction for state and local taxes, they lose the value of their real estate for property taxes.
I think this is the first time I’ve sat down with you since Trump has been president. So what’s your impression so far?
Look, this guy is not qualified to be president of the United States. We have such a low bar right now. I spent more time cleaning up things and explaining things, talking to the German No. 3 in their State Department, and we had a very interesting discussion about the president of the United States.
I talked to the EU – we’re dealing with Iran right now. That’s a self-imposed problem. North Korea is much more challenging because of what he’s done. I deal with foreign policy all the time. As I explain to staff, he’s not a chess player, he’s not always looking at the next move. But he’s not a good checker player.
He doesn’t have the temperament. He doesn’t have an understanding of how important his words are and he doesn’t listen to advice and is not strategic. There are reasons he causes a lot of problems for this country. You saw that in Bonn and you see it in international forums and you see it in the United States.
I assume you think his EPA is a threat to the Chesapeake Bay as well.
His environmental agenda is terrible. It’s demonstrated unfortunately in a lot of different things, the Waters of the U.S., his lack of commitment to clean air, his selection for administrator of the EPA, it’s just one thing after the next. He’s willing to compromise public health, he’s willing to compromise clean air and water for special interests and it’s typical of his policies. He puts it under the rubric of regulatory reform but frankly, I think the public wants clean air and clean water.
What do you think the political pop of deregulation is?
I think it can be popular. I think the question is whether it’s a front burner issue. Right now, as we saw in Virginia, I think health care is a front burner issue. I think that got people engaged in the political process. I’m not so sure environment is a front burner issue. We’re going to try to make it a front burner issue. It certainly is a popular issue. But we don’t know what the flavor of 2018 will be as far as election issues are concerned.
So how do you make environment a front burner issue?
Tell me what country is outside the mainstream of the entire world when it comes to our global responsibility to recognize the importance of the environment? That’s the United States of America. He is so far outside of the norm he can make an issue that would otherwise not be a front burner issue. When I personalize it, the Chesapeake Bay, that is a front burner issue for Maryland. We can make it a front burner issue in Maryland. The question is can we make it a front burner issue in the states where we’re trying to pick up seats? That’s going to be a little more challenging, but I think the answer is yes. What we found in Maryland is, this has never been a partisan issue. By making it a partisan issue, the Republicans are doing it at their own risk.
Quite frankly, when you see hurricanes, wildfires and all those other things occur, I understand you can’t draw a direct line, but there are so many things going on. There comes a point where the public says, enough is enough. And let’s get with this. Carbon emissions have a real consequence.
What other lessons do you think Democrats should take after the recent election?
There’s energy out there. And it can be translated into people voting who haven’t voted before and in numbers that haven’t been there before.
Do you feel confident about taking back the majority in both chambers of Congress?
Oh no, I don’t mean to give you that. I joked three weeks ago that we have a better chance of taking back the Senate than Trump had of being elected president, so I think we clearly are in the hunt to take back the majority of the Senate but I would not want to make a prediction a year out. We have 25 seats up and they only have nine.
What do you feel the political terrain is like at home right now?
I’ve been all over Maryland. I’ve been out in the areas that voted for Donald Trump – there aren’t that many in Maryland – and I get that people are appreciative that I’m listening. We’ve had town halls on health care in every part of the state and I had one of my best discussions in Oakland, Md., about health care. I’ve talked about the opioid issue in every part of the state. Opioid addiction is a major problem in Maryland.
I sense that people want me to be direct in how I feel…and I find that my reception has really been positive all throughout Maryland.
I do think there’s an energy out there and Donald Trump inflates that. Certainly if I were Larry Hogan I’d be a little worried.
You anticipated my next question. How do you see that race evolving?
I think Gov. Hogan needs to understand that there’s a wave there…There’s going to be a lot of interest [nationally] in picking up seats, and people are going to say, Maryland? A Republican governor? We’re going to have to make an adjustment here.
Since it’s almost an all-Democratic delegation, how do you and your colleagues get along with the governor?
We get along well. I learned this from Barbara Mikulski. Team Maryland is Team Maryland. It’s not Republican Team Maryland or Democratic Team Maryland. We use all of our talent. And that means I consult frequently with Gov. Hogan. We don’t always see eye to eye. On the bay, we had differences on the oysters. That was something we tried to resolve. But on a lot of issues, there’s no difference. We work very closely. And I get along very well with Congressman [Andy] Harris (R). So I get along with all the members of our delegation. I try to be mindful of their congressional districts, which we use to try to set priorities for the whole state. So I’ll defer sometimes to the congressmen on local issues.
Has your life changed much now that you’re the senior senator?
It has changed. It has caused me to try to set priorities on the appropriations process, to help set priorities on the bay, the whole state, you go the federal facilities, you champion their cause. Military installations, to recognize that there will be another BRAC round, so prepare for that. In addition, I’ve had several conversations with the administration on judicial issues that require our understanding, so it takes some finesse there.
Maryland is a great state. The fact that I go home every night to Baltimore, it really does give you a break that you don’t have in any other state. And Mondays and Fridays I can be all over Maryland. Weekends I can be in Maryland and I can spend time with my family because I’ve been in Maryland every night.